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Doing the Ditch

October 28, 2013

by Paula

To get from our starting point in the Chesapeake Bay to the islands of the Bahamas, we will first travel down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).  The ditch is a 3000-mile long path of waterways along the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts consisting of numerous rivers, inlets, bays, and sounds, as well as man-made canals.  It offers a somewhat easy route south without getting out into the open sea.

We started at mile 0 in the busy port of Norfolk with our final ICW stop still uncertain.  We have a few options to weigh over the next few weeks that will help us determine at what point we will head out to sail to the Bahamas.  One possibility is to jump off at Beaufort, NC.  However, we may decide to continue south to take in the charming city of Charleston and the beautiful grasslands near Savannah.  

Depths are shallow on the other side of the marker to the shore
The winding Alligator River
Traversing the ICW is mainly a job for the engine; there are very few opportunities for sailing, particularly with a boat of our draft. Travel must happen during daylight hours as it is necessary to follow channel markers to stay in deep(ish) water and because there are some hazards that are unmarked. Marks are numbered in order and indicate where the channel lies.  In general, red, triangular markers with even numbers indicate the right side of the channel (when traveling south) and green, square markers with odd numbers are along the left.  Things are actually a bit more complicated than this, and you can click here to get a great overview. Rivers are often winding and shallow -- making it important to clearly follow the marks.  Even a very wide river might have only a few feet of depth outside of the channel.

The Great Dismal Swamp cypress trees

ICW canals can be highly developed and busy waterways with lots of high-speed powerboat traffic  (more common in Florida) or man-made cuts through otherwise wild and remote terrain. The ICW in Virginia and upper North Carolina passes through one of the last large and wild areas of the Eastern US, the Great Dismal Swamp.

Transiting the ICW requires passing through numerous bridges along the way.  Most fixed bridges are built at a height of 65 feet, which is enough for most sailboats to pass underneath. Day Star's mast stands
about 57 feet above the water, so we make our way under bridges with just a bit of anxiety. From the vantage point of the cockpit, it always seems that the mast is about to crash smack into the bridge -- but then we just motor right through. Other bridges, such as swing, bascule, and lift bridges, are low to the water, and it is necessary to wait for them to open to pass through. Many of these bridges open on a set schedule, such as every hour or half hour. If we arrive at an off-time, we must idle and slowly motor around while waiting for the opening. This can take great attention if there are other boats also waiting nearby. Some bridges open on request when a boat arrives and hails the bridge operator on the VHF radio.

Cash takes us through a swing bridge:

Greg takes us through a draw bridge:

In the town of Great Bridge, Virginia, we traveled through a working lock.  We motored in and tied up along the starboard side, while other boats did the same behind us.  The main gates closed and then the sluice gates opened to let the water rise.  Though we were raised only about a foot and a half, it was still pretty cool.

In the Great Bridge Lock waiting 
for the gates to close

The Great Bridge lock gates start to open


There are a few brief opportunities for sailing such as in Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, but this requires the right wind conditions since there is not always enough depth in all directions

Along the path of the ICW are some marinas for docking, but they do not occur often enough for most sailboats to rely on getting to one each night. It is necessary to time the day's travel to finish at a spot appropriate for anchoring,  Motoring at a rate of 6.5 knots means that we will usually go between 30 and 50 miles per day.  Not all rivers have good anchoring spots,and it is not possible to anchor in the narrow canals.  Ideal anchorages have protection from the current weather, enough depth to accommodate the boat, and are far enough from the navigation channel to be out of the way of other boats.  These are few and far between!

Alligator River sunrise at anchor

Blog-writing, foot-steering, and music-playing in the cockpit
We rise at sunrise, eat breakfast, and get on our way.  We take turns driving, and do school-work and other tasks while off the helm.  The days are getting shorter, so we plan to be firmly in place at our next anchorage before the sun falls past the horizon at 6:00 or so.  After setting anchor we tidy the boat and then head below for a hot dinner.  We read, do schoolwork, and play music, in addition to getting weather reports and doing route-planning for the following day.  Bed-time is earlier than we are used to, but it feels good to get under the warm covers.  Then we rise with the sun and do it all again the next day.

Aunt Lisa said...

Thanks for the window into your sailing days! I like all the pictures you post, and I appreciate the maps. Doesn't the salt air and humidity wreak havoc on your guitar?

Lisa said...

Thought that was Cash's post!